Protein powders also happen to be a very large product category with many choices. Many have difficulty sorting through all the options and choosing the right one. This article will help acquaint you with the different types of protein powder, what the key differences are among them and will help you zero in on the specific product that’s right for you.
Nutrition Express carries over a hundred protein powders. All of them are good products and all of them work in the sense that they will do a good job of supplementing protein to your diet. So there’s really no wrong one to choose. It’s not unusual—and not a bad idea either—for people to try a few different types over the course of a few months before finding the one they like best.
The most common concerns people raise after looking at protein powders and reading labels are allergies to protein components such as lactose, soy, casein or eggs. Another common concern relates to artificial ingredients, which some wish to avoid. In both cases, there are plenty of alternatives from which to choose.
Despite the wide variety of protein powders available, the differences boil down to a few characteristics:
• The type(s) of protein used;
• The types of flavors and sweeteners used;
• Cost per serving or per gram of protein;
• Additional ingredients used to enhance the product’s benefits.
1. Type(s) of Protein
The types of protein used in protein powders can be divided into two categories: animal source proteins and vegetable source proteins. Animal source proteins include milk protein derivatives like whey and casein, goat's milk and egg white protein. Vegetable source proteins include soy, rice, pea and hemp proteins.
Nutritionally and taste-wise, animal proteins are superior to vegetable proteins and far more popular. Of the animal protein types, the most popular is whey protein. Of the vegetable protein types, soy is the most popular. Most people using vegetable protein powders do so as part of a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, although many people use soy protein primarily for its heart-health and/or hormone-balancing benefits.
Tip: You can browse protein powders at the Nutrition Express website by the type of protein used.
Whey ProteinWhey protein is derived from milk. The protein portion of whole milk consists of 20% whey protein and 80% casein protein. Whey is by far the most popular type of protein used in protein powders. For most people, it’s the best all-around choice in terms of taste (it’s one of the best-tasting), quality (it’s the highest) and cost (it’s the most economical). Another unique benefit of whey protein, and one that is often overlooked, is that it enhances the immune system in several ways.
Whey protein comes in two varieties, whey concentrate and whey isolate. The advantages of each are:
Whey Concentrate: Whey concentrate is more economical per gram of protein. It has a low lactose level that is well tolerated by most lactose-sensitive people. It has trivial amounts of fat and carbs relative to your overall nutrient intake. Whey concentrate is typically the best-selling category of whey.
Whey Isolate: Whey isolate is virtually fat-free for those wishing to eliminate as much fat from their diet as possible. It is typically lactose free for those few individuals who are very sensitive to the low-lactose levels found in whey concentrate. Whey isolate tends to taste slightly better than whey concentrate too, yet its consistency is a little thinner, without the fat.
Whey protein products can be made from whey concentrate, whey isolate or a blend of both. Other types of protein are sometimes combined with whey proteins in products and are known as protein blends.
Tip: The name of a particular protein powder may or may not indicate what specific types of protein are used in the product. You can check the label information or Quick Facts section on a product page to find out exactly what protein types it contains.
Casein or Milk Protein
Like whey protein, casein protein is another milk protein derivative. Since most of the protein (80%) in milk is casein, the terms “milk protein” and “casein protein” are used interchangeably. The key difference between whey and casein is that whey is absorbed in the digestive system quickly, whereas casein is absorbed slowly and steadily. Taste-wise they are similar. Both are more or less tasteless in their unflavored and unsweetened state.
Customers often ask which is better, whey or casein. That’s a hard question to answer because both have unique benefits. For a good comparison, read Jeff Volek’s article, Whey vs. Casein.
Tip: Casein protein may not appear on labels as casein protein. It usually appears as calcium caseinate.
Egg White Protein
Egg white protein was the most popular type of protein supplement for many years before milk proteins surpassed its popularity due to their better taste and lower cost.
Like milk proteins, egg white is also naturally very low in fat and carbs.
Egg white protein is cholesterol-free and an excellent choice for those who wish to avoid dairy products.
Among the vegetable source proteins, soy protein is by far the most popular. Soy and hemp are unique among vegetable protein sources in that they supply all 8 essential amino acids. Most vegetable proteins lack one or more.
Soy has additional benefits, too. The isoflavones in soy provide antioxidant benefits, heart health benefits and is often used by women transitioning through menopause.
For all its benefits, soy protein has a characteristic taste that, while not unpleasant, can be hard to completely mask with flavors and sweeteners, especially when soy is the sole protein source in a product.
Fitness Labs found a way around this issue by using a proprietary blend of flavors and sweeteners. Their SoyFit protein powder is the best tasting soy protein I’ve ever tried and a great choice for those who want to use soy but are particular about taste.
Nutrition Express also carries a specially-formulated soy protein with very high isoflavone content, Fitness Labs Soy Protein Isolate Triple Isoflavones. Note that this product is unflavored and unsweetened. You can flavor it with frozen fruit, vanilla extract, cocoa powder, Emergen-C packets and sweeten it with xylitol, stevia, honey, agave nectar or whatever you like.
2. Types of Flavors and Sweeteners Used
Manufacturers have hundreds of options to choose from when flavoring and sweetening their protein powder products. Your flavoring choices fall into 3 categories:1. No flavors or sweeteners;
What you decide to use is up to you. The flavors and sweeteners have no impact whatsoever on the nutritional value of the protein; they only affect the taste.
All of the artificial flavors and sweeteners in protein powders have been approved for use in food products by all the relevant regulatory agencies. Artificial flavors and sweeteners have many advantages over their natural alternatives. They give the formulators more options, flexibility and control over the taste of the product. They cost far less. Smaller quantities are required. They have greater stability and suffer less degradation during storage.
Manufacturers purchase artificial flavors as finished, stand-alone ingredients from companies that specialize in such products. Since each company’s product name for their flavor ingredient would not be recognizable to the public, and since manufacturers need to protect their flavor recipes from being copied by competitors, these ingredients are simply listed on the label as artificial flavors. The same holds true for natural flavor ingredients.
While most customers use protein powders containing a combination of natural and artificial flavors and sweeteners, some still prefer an all-natural product. There are many excellent all-natural protein powders including Lindberg Natural Whey, Fitness Labs Natural Vanilla Flavored WheyFit Concentrate or Isolate and Biochem (Country Life) 100% Whey Protein. These products contain only natural flavors and sweetening ingredients.
You may also want to use an unflavored and unsweetened protein powder for baking or for using your own flavors and sweeteners. Your two best choices are Lindberg 100% Whey Concentrate Unflavored or Fitness Labs Soy Protein Isolate. The whey protein is the more neutral tasting of the two.
There aren’t huge differences in protein powders when comparing similar products with similar ingredients. It is easy to compare prices on protein powders that just contain one type of protein. The difficulty arises when comparing products that are blends of protein types. Some proteins are more expensive than others and without knowing the proportions of each type in the mixture, a comparison is hard to make. Some companies add other nutrients like amino acids or digestive enzymes to their protein, making price comparisons even murkier.
In protein blends, manufacturers usually describe their unique mixture of protein types as a proprietary blend. The ingredient list will show the types of protein proportionately, from most to least, but won’t provide the exact amount of each type.
If you are trying a protein for the first time, buy the smallest size possible. Once you’ve found a product you like, the largest size offers the best value and gives you substantial savings over smaller sizes. A 2-pound tub of protein may seem like an awful lot, but will typically contain only 23-30 servings. If you use the product every day, that’s just under one month. Save yourself time and money by buying the largest size possible once you’ve found a product you like.
Tip: Ask if single serving trial sizes or free samples are available for a product that interests you, so that you can try it for free or at minimal cost.
Besides protein, flavors and sweeteners, many manufacturers add other ingredients to enhance the product’s nutritional value or taste, or to make it easier to use.
One very common enhancement, and one that most customers prefer, is the addition of small amounts of lecithin to protein powder. Lecithin is a healthy fat from soy. It’s added to improve the mix-ability of the powder and reduce clumping. Unlike other soy foods, lecithin does not have any phytoestrogen compounds and makes a great addition to a protein shake. Many customers actually add lecithin granules to shakes for memory enhancing and cardiovascular benefits.
Other protein powders are enhanced with digestive enzymes to help improve the absorption of large servings of protein. Added lactase and Aminogen digestive enzymes in Optimum Nutrition 100% Whey Gold Standard is one example.
Another way to enhance a protein powder is by adding amino acids to improve its nutritional value. Although whey protein contains all the necessary amino acids, it doesn’t provide them in equal amounts. By adding amino acids like glutamine, BCAAs and arginine, the nutritional benefits of that protein are extended and enhanced. The Amino Boost blend in the WheyFit family of products is an example of this type of enhancement.
Other types of enhancements include the addition of carbohydrates and nutritional fats to the protein and/or the addition of vitamins and minerals. However, when these types of ingredients are added, the products can no longer be accurately called protein powders. Such products are known as Meal Replacements or Gainers with Carbs.
I hope this article has been helpful to you. If you have still have questions about protein powders, you can email CustomerCare@NutritionExpress.com anytime.